Or Torah: The Tunisian Synagogue of Acco
The Old City of Acco is a gem of a jumble by the Mediterranean; Crusaders, Bahai’is, Ottoman warlords, Napoleon, the ancient harbor, Nachman of Bratslav, the Irgun, and the thickest city wall in human history all combine to make it a destination as enchanting as it is confusing.
Just outside the walls, however, is another treasure altogether: The “Or Torah” Tunisian Synagogue is three-and-a-half storeys of solid stone mosaic. Every inch of every wall, ceiling and floor is covered with original mosaics, representing themes from the length and breadth of Jewish history. It is a veritable encyclopedia of visual narrative from Abraham to Herzl. The women’s section is devoted completely to the heroines of Jewish history while the floor of the week-day sanctuary is a pictorial guide to the flora and fauna of the Bible. One staircase is a holocaust memorial and the walls of the annex are an ode in rock to the four sacred cities of Eretz Yisrael and to every Hebrew coin ever minted. But it is the main sanctuary, used on Shabbat and holidays, that truly takes one’s breath away. It is a rare instance in which the phrase “jaw-dropping” is precisely appropriate. I cannot imagine that I would be able to keep my eyes on the prayers in the siddur were I to find myself here on Shabbat. To describe the contents of that one room would take many pages. I can’t do it. You will simply have to go see it for yourself.
The synagogue was the brain-child, the life work and the personal triumph of one man, Tzion Badash. He made Aliya from Tunisia in 1954, and after appealing to the municipality for permission to renovate an abandoned building to accommodate the needs of the Tunisian community, he began, bit by bit, piece by piece, shekel by shekel, to transform the building into a masterpiece. The artwork itself is the product of a brilliant mosaic workshop on Kibbutz Eilon. Their mosaics (known all over the world) use the classic technique of crushed natural rock. No painted tiles, no enamel coating, just a collection of thousands upon thousands of little stones of varied colors, each one taken from the soil of Israel.
There is something natural and earthy about this ancient art form, and something authentic about it being used to ornament a synagogue in 21st century Israel. The artisans of Eilon work with small hammers, special tools and a keen eye for color, and they faithfully executed each one of Tzion Badash’s specific requests for this biblical scene or that geographic montage. Their work is a loyal echo of the creators of the mosaic floors of the many 5th century synagogues that can be found throughout Israel: Ein Gedi, Tzipori, Tiberias, Beit Alpha, Naaran, the list is well known. Each community built a building, raised the funds and found an artist who could do the job, according to the images requested. In each case, because stone is the one thing that can’t really be destroyed by time or nature, the earth opens its mouth after 1500 years to tell us the story of the ancient town and its house of worship.
Last month, to celebrate our 30th anniversary, Miriam and I went to Acco for a vacation. My wife is a lover of mosaics and she told me about this synagogue she wanted to visit that was only a five-minute walk from our hotel. After reading about it, I looked forward to meeting Badash, the legendary gabai, and hearing his amazing story. When we got there we discovered that we were three months too late. Tziyon Badash died in November. His daughter Yaffa greets every visitor, and is only too happy to tell the story of her incredible father, his life’s dream and his remarkable synagogue. Gabai Badash is gone, but the synagogue that he built is still very much alive, hosting daily prayers, special events, and visitors from every corner of the world.